Written by Paige Freeman, PhD., a FAC Directory-listed therapy provider,
See more information about Paige and her practice at the end of this article.
Allergy moms: I have some not so great news. No matter how hard you try, how diligent you are, or how many plans you have- at some point your child will likely be exposed to their allergen. You are not going to navigate this journey perfectly, no matter how many precautions you put in place. And for many of us, even if we were to get it perfect we would still beat ourselves up. (For a deeper dive on this, read my friend Heather Hewett’s Allergic Living article here.)
Here are just a few things allergy moms feel bad about:
Do you notice a theme here? So many times in our allergy world, there are no good solutions because there are pros and cons to almost every decision. Adding to this is a lack of consistent messaging about how to manage food allergies and an overload of input from social media on the multitude of different ways families handle their own allergies.
Compassion is defined as being moved by the suffering of others.
Self-compassion is recognizing that your suffering is difficult and acknowledging the pain.
You can’t ignore your pain and feel compassion for it at the same time. If self-compassion is difficult for you, I’d like for you to think for a minute about how you talk to your child about their difficult thoughts and emotions, or about a mistake they have made.
Now imagine talking to your child in the same manner you talk to yourself about those same thoughts and emotions and missteps. As you picture talking to your child the way you talk to yourself, ask yourself some questions:
Notice, Name and Normalize
Get curious about what your mind is telling you. Observe the thoughts, emotions, memories, etc. that are coming up. It is helpful to complete the sentence, “I notice my mind is telling me…” (Remember that you are observing your thoughts, not judging them).
Also notice what is going on in your body. Does your chest feel full? Do you have a lump in your throat? Are your shoulders tight? Butterflies in your stomach?
Put a name to what is happening. Maybe emotions of shame, guilt, anger, vulnerability, or self doubt are showing up. Maybe it is a feeling of deep tiredness. Maybe it is a memory of helplessness. Maybe the only thing you are experiencing is pain in your lower back.
Whatever it is, after you notice what is happening in your mind and body, then name it. For example, “I am noticing my chest feels heavy”, “I am noticing deep shame”, or “I am noticing regret”.
And then acknowledge the difficulty of it. Acknowledge that it is painful. Naming this can be as simple as, “This is difficult” or “This is exhausting”.
When we are in the midst of suffering, it is helpful to remember that suffering is a part of the human condition. Our highly evolved brains are hard-wired for suffering, and the more we try to avoid experiencing discomfort, the more it sticks around.
Although our specific circumstances are not always the same, humans have the shared struggle of deeply painful experiences. In the food allergy space, there are many moms out there feeling very similarly to you. And it is very difficult.
So when normalizing you may say to yourself, “This is painful and hard, and difficult emotions are a universal human experience” or “Humans are hard-wired to suffer sometimes. It is normal”
Remember that this food allergy journey is very challenging, and painful emotions including guilt are common. Please be kind to yourself. You are navigating something that is very difficult, and some self-compassion can go a long way towards healing and living a purposeful life.
Looking for more on this and related topics? Check out:
Remember, support is out there if you need it!
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Understanding Allergy Parent Guilt
When we receive our child's allergy or medical diagnosis, we typically experience a variety of emotions - usually some that are pretty intense. It's while we are in that hurricane of emotions that our mind tries to become the anchor, looking for ways to make sense of this new diagnosis that we never wanted in the first place.
So when our child receives their allergy or medical diagnosis, we want to know WHY. “How did this food allergy or health condition develop? What caused it? How can I avoid more allergies or health complications from developing and keep my child safe at all times?”
But sometimes, the answer to why the allergy or medical condition developed is that there is no specific cause. Given that our mind wants actual answers, it often struggles to deal with that explanation. Therefore, this lack of clarity definitely doesn't make our mind feel safe because it leaves us with EVEN MORE uncertainty and unpredictability.
In the face of that ongoing uncertainty, parents tend to keep searching for answers. Our mind tells us that there just has to be some stone left unturned that explains WHY our child developed the allergy or medical condition!
It's in this quest to answer that elusive WHY that some parents engage in the “blame game” - blaming themselves for the allergy or health condition. This, of course, only enhances the feelings of guilt.
Since guilt is a behavior-focused emotion, it often leads us to believe that we did something wrong or bad. Therefore, playing the blame game leads us to believe that we must have done something (or NOT done something) that led to this diagnosis. Somehow, it must be our fault, even if there's no evidence to prove it.
Even without evidence to prove that the allergy or medical condition developed because of something we did or didn’t do, this answer somehow provides the certainty parents are looking for. It’s AN answer even if it’s not THE answer.
But then this faulty assumption leads to this unhelpful thought: "If I somehow made the allergy or medical condition develop, then I can prevent another allergy, an allergic reaction, or more complications from occurring by eliminating ALL risks for my child."
And it’s this uncomfortable belief that tends to send parents into an unhelpful pattern of control-seeking and over-avoidance, which leads to ongoing and quality of life-impacting anxiety and overwhelm (because we just can’t control everything!)
While guilt can push us towards unhelpful assumptions and thought patterns in service of finding certainty, predictability and safety, it’s important to notice when this is happening. It’s easy to stay stuck in this unhelpful guilt loop, but it is absolutely possible to experience guilt and not let it push you into the blame game.
Exploring our feelings helps us develop a new perspective and a new relationship with them. Therefore, by getting curious about our guilt, it helps us exit the blame game and the unhelpful loop of regret, and develop an understanding of why else it might be popping up.
Exercise to Try: Get Curious With Your Allergy Parent Guilt
Rather than focusing on finding a cause of the guilt, use these questions below to help you begin to view guilt differently and to redirect it into more mindful and purposeful thoughts and actions:
And if you find that this exercise uncovers elevated anxiety that your guilt feelings have been saving you from, here are some allergy anxiety-focused tools and information that you may find helpful:
All emotions are part of the human experience, even the ones we don't enjoy, such as guilt. Rather than get upset with the emotion and aim to keep yourself from ever feeling it again (because you'll spend tons of energy working toward that unrealistic goal), work towards exploring and understanding its purpose. THEN, you'll be able to find a way to work with or around it rather than being kept captive by it.
And if you're needing more allergy-related psychosocial support, don't forget to check out the Food Allergy Counselor Directory, the Exploring Food Allergy Families podcast, the Food Allergy Behavioral Health Resource section, the allergy-specific therapeutic worksheets, and to sign up for weekly allergy life, mindset and anxiety tips via FAC Corner emails!
Note: I'm not an allergist, so this piece should not be taken as medical advice. However, I'm a licensed clinical professional counselor that often works with those managing food allergies, as well as a parent of a child with a food allergy that has taken part in a clinical trial and follow up treatment. I've experienced the feelings that many parents feel while pursuing treatments, but also have the clinical background to know it's important to explore any and all emotions while pursuing food allergy treatments. Please always be sure to communicate all thoughts and feelings with your allergist or treatment team. [Article Updated July 2021]
When we think of pursuing food allergy treatments, hope tends to be the leading emotion. Hope for positive outcomes. Hope that pursuing the treatment will result in the ability to tolerate accidental, small or maybe even large amounts of the allergen. Hope that quality of life will improve once in maintenance.
However, the reality is that food allergy treatments don't always go as planned. With oral immunotherapy (OIT) for instance, some can tolerate doses, while others can't. In cases where OIT doesn't go smoothly, working with your allergist on adjustments, such as changes in dosing amounts, dosing foods, or time of doses may help resolve potential roadblocks.
But SOMETIMES, tweaks and changes don't resolve the issues. Whether it's for medical reasons or due to psychological barriers, sometimes food allergy treatments come to a screeching halt. Therefore, it's no surprise that some of the emotions that may follow this scenario are...
It's these less popular emotions I'd like to explore. I'm fully aware that this piece may be encouraging you to visit thoughts and feelings that may feel better staying put, stuffed down deep inside. While exploring these emotions may make you feel vulnerable and uncomfortable, it's important to process them, as they themselves can create food allergy treatment roadblocks if left unchecked. Read through some of the thoughts and feelings below to help identify if any have been involved in your journey so that you can process them and move forward.
*NOTE: While the content below is helpful in exploring thoughts and feelings, please be sure to always discuss any treatment-related thoughts, feelings, decisions, or potential roadblocks you're experiencing with your allergist or treatment team.*
Guilt may come in two forms: Guilt for not pursuing a food allergy treatment, and guilt for pursuing a food allergy treatment. Let's explore both separately.
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